February is Black History Month: Black Canadians at Vimy Ridge

Article / February 6, 2017

When the four divisions of the Canadian Corps began their assault on Vimy Ridge on the morning of April 9, 1917, it was a cosmopolitan affair, with men of Black, Chinese, Japanese and Sikh origin serving in the battle. Conventional wisdom has it that Black Canadians were unable to enlist in the Canadian Expeditionary Force before the formation of No. 2 Construction Battalion in July 1916, yet they had been enlisting since September 1914 and were killed even in Canada’s first major battle, the Second Battle of Ypres, in April-May 1915.   

At least 135 Black men had enlisted in the infantry by the end of 1916.  At the time of Vimy Ridge, at least 80 of these Black soldiers were unavailable, having been released for medical reasons, wounded or killed in prior battles. At least 16 were in England awaiting transfer to the front, and 15 had transferred to No. 2 Construction Battalion.

Black soldiers could be found in all four divisions of the Canadian Corps, primarily in the infantry but also in artillery, engineers and signals. Three were veterans who had enlisted in September 1914. Most went over the top in the initial wave and through the machine gun fire and shelling, while Private Frank Bollen of the 107th Pioneer Battalion followed up laying cable behind the advancing troops. 

The majority of the Black soldiers survived physically unscathed; however, there were casualties. Of those serving with The Royal Canadian Regiment, two were wounded.  Private Jeremiah Jones (pictured) was hit by shrapnel in his left forearm so badly that he was invalided back to Canada. Private Percy Martin suffered a gunshot wound to his left arm, but returned to the regiment. Private Curley Christian of the 78th Battalion was buried by a shell and remained buried for several days. He would lose the lower parts of all four limbs to gangrene.

The Black soldier who most distinguished himself at Vimy Ridge was Lieutenant Lancelot Joseph Bertrand. He would end up leading No. 4 Company, 7th Battalion on to their objective after the company commander and then other officers fell in combat. For this he was awarded the Military Cross.  

Black soldiers continued their tradition of service and sacrifice after Vimy. Of the Black soldiers who fought there, eight were killed later in the war, including Lieutenant Bertrand, who was killed at Hill 70 along with Private Samuel Watts and Private Norman Ash. Private Percy Martin was awarded a Military Medal in 1918. Private Curley Christian went on to become an advocate for wounded veterans, while Private Henry Thomas Shepherd would go on to become a Company Sergeant Major at the start of the Second World War and be made a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire.

In the 100 years since Vimy Ridge, Black Canadians have gone on to serve in every branch of the military, at every level, at home and in operations around the world, during the Cold War and in international peacekeeping operations, sharing the sacrifices and achievements of today’s Canadian Armed Forces.

Date modified: